Leprosy drug may help fight COVID-19

Leprosy drug may help fight COVID-19

Written by Robby Berman on March 21, 2021 — Fact checked by Anna Guildford, Ph.D.
Share on PinterestA leprosy drug called clofazimine has shown promise against SARS-CoV-2 in a hamster study. Comezora/Getty Images

  • In an effort to combat SARS-CoV-2, and with the rise of other coronaviruses likely, experts are looking for existing drugs that can fight these infections.
  • A leprosy drug called clofazimine has shown promise against SARS-CoV-2 in hamsters.
  • Clofazimine blocks the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to enter cells and replicate via RNA.
  • The drug has also shown promise against Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in laboratory experiments.

SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus that causes COVID-19, is not the only zoonotic coronavirus. In fact, it is the third to have emerged since the turn of the century. It was preceded by severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and MERS in 2012.

There are likely to be more coronaviruses if the recent past is any indication. However, there are not currently many drugs that can effectively combat them.

Researchers have been racing to identify existing drugs that may be of use in this fight, with one team last year identifying 21 existing drugs as showing promise. Among these was a leprosy drug called clofazimine, which has proven effective against both SARS and MERS in laboratory experiments.

Stay informed with live updates on the current COVID-19 outbreak and visit our coronavirus hub for more advice on prevention and treatment.

A new study from researchers at Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego, CA, and the University of Hong Kong in Pok Fu Lam suggests that it may also be useful in treating COVID-19.

Clofazimine exhibits antiviral properties against SARS-CoV-2 and limits the extreme inflammatory response that commonly occurs with COVID-19.

The study has undergone peer review and will soon appear in edited form in the journal Nature.

A drug that is well-known and safe

If researchers confirm clofazimine’s efficacy, experts could immediately deploy the drug against SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have already approved it for use against leprosy, and it is on the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Model List of Essential Medicines. Experts have thoroughly vetted the drug for safety, though it is not currently available for sale in the United States.

Co-senior study author Dr. Sumit K. Chanda — of the Immunity and Pathogenesis Program at Sanford Burnham Prebys — says, “Clofazimine is an ideal candidate for a COVID-19 treatment. It is safe, affordable, easy to make, taken as a pill and can be made globally available.”

Dr. Chanda explains, “We hope to test clofazimine in a phase 2 clinical trial as soon as possible for people who test positive for COVID-19 but are not hospitalized,” adding:

“Since there is currently no outpatient treatment available for these individuals, clofazimine may help reduce the impact of the disease, which is particularly important now as we see new variants of the virus emerge and against which the current vaccines appear less efficacious.”

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